Amy Zhang '19

Bringing Service to the

Bringing Service to the Classroom

Service learning is a two-way street. Skills MIT students gain in the classroom are frequently applied to service work, but skills learned while engaging in service can be useful in the classroom, too.

The term “public service” can conjure images of serving meals at a soup kitchen or collecting donations for a clothing drive. At MIT service looks a bit different, and for Amy Zhang (‘19 , Course IX) that’s a good thing. “What really drew me toward the PKG Center was I was looking for opportunities to really immersively volunteer and not just show up somewhere once a week,” said Amy. “That’s what I really liked about this IAP program because right from the very start they marketed it as an immersive healthcare experience.”

Last January, Amy along with nine other MIT graduate and undergraduate students participated in PKG IAP: Healthcare, an immersive, four-week experience in partnership with Boston Medical Center’s (BMC) autism unit. “It was really great to be thrown into an active hospital working environment. It’s nice to have something different than what you’d see in class where it’s very structured. In class it’s ‘do your homework’ or ‘take this test.’ At the hospital it was more ‘see how this goes and make adjustments as needed.’ We would take it day by day trying to complete our own work but also working with everyone on the team,” said Amy.   

Though Amy has had a long-standing interest in health and human development (she worked at a summer program for students with special needs throughout high school), the Brain and Cognitive Science major said she learned a great deal from her time at BMC. “We were able to go to lots of different talks for hospital employees. Not only did we get to see the ‘case of the week’ where they went through one of their harder cases and how to solve the issues but we also heard some really great seminars on the economics of healthcare and how to best support people trying to pay for it or how to address issues such as transgender health. It was really eye-opening,” said Amy.  “I think that was the great thing about working with BMC. They’re very focused on understanding all members of the populations they serve and how to best serve them,” she added.   

Since completing the IAP healthcare program, Amy has been able to apply her experience directly to her MIT coursework. “The semester after [the program], I took a class on gender, health and society and that had a pretty heavy focus on the different disparities that exist between genders or different ethnicities. It was really interesting because I was seeing the connection between what I had personally observed during my PKG experience and what we were learning in class. In general, the [IAP] experience made me want to continue working in that realm, so now I’m working with the Family Van which brings health screenings to disadvantaged Boston communities. Specifically in terms of understanding more about autism, one of the classes I’m taking this semester is ‘Infant and Early Childhood Cognition’ so we cover a lot of different cognition topics. One of the things we have to do is develop a research idea and I’m focusing mine on autism and social interactions. I think that came partially from being able to have this experience and a better understanding.”

In a few weeks, a new MIT cohort will have the chance to engage with BMC’s autism program or with the PKG Center’s new healthcare program partner, Charles River Community Health. Amy advises the new group to keep an open mind and notes that MIT students have many unique skills to bring to the experience. “The thing with MIT students is we have such a strong technical curriculum. I think almost everyone during the program knew some bit of coding or higher-level engineering concepts. In this environment, everyone was super enthusiastic all the time, constantly problem-solving and coming up with new ideas. MIT promotes a very critical thinking and learning style and I saw that being applied [at BMC].”